After a few months of slumber, venture capitalist Eric X. Li has predictably popped his head up once again to deliver his one-hit wonder on the superiority of the Chinese political model and the inevitable demise of Western-style democracy. This time it was at a TED Talk.
Li’s premise, which has previously been printed by the likes of New York Times, Huffington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Financial Times and Foreign Affairs, is that China’s system is meritocratic, efficient and totally legitimate since surveys show most Chinese are optimistic about the future. Meanwhile, extensive individual rights will be America’s undoing. The Chinese model is destined for prosperity and Western democracy is destined for failure.
I’m not going to bother listing the numerous holes in Li’s arguments. That’s already been done here, here, here and here. I want to talk about why pundits like him (and people on the opposite extreme) get so much media attention – attention that some people mistake as proof of credibility.
Respected media outlets (like those listed above) laudably try to be balanced. Unfortunately, this balance can sometimes come in lazy or sensational forms. If an outlet has published a series of pieces by China bears, printing a piece by someone like Eric Li brings instant “balance.” Print his work and nobody can accuse you of being pro-American propaganda or having an anti-China slant.
Balance could come in nuanced form from several balanced individuals of varying shades of gray, but that’s not nearly as titillating as getting “balance” from pitting black against white. Readers don’t respond to nuance in the same way they respond to conflict.
This is where the Gordon Chang-grade doomsayers come in. Chang has arguments equally questionable to Li’s coming from the other side; ie – The CCP has little if any redeeming qualities and it will DEFINITELY collapse by 2011, the end of 2012, sometime in 2013. Chang has a media presence just as large as Li’s and for the same reasons. Their extreme opposing views create “balance” while drawing far more attention than more modest and nuanced commentators can. Getting a re-tweet out of mockery or disbelief counts just as much to advertisers as a re-tweet out of respect.
But there’s an even more fundamental reason these types of commentators thrive. Eric Li isn’t sought after because of his qualifications (he has none) or the depth of his reasoning. He’s sought after for the simplicity of his argument and the concrete conclusion it leads to.
Ask any respected China scholar or journalist whether they think the Communist Party will collapse; or ask whether they think China will rule the world in 30 years or implode from internal issues. They should all give pretty much the same answer: who knows?
The more you learn about China the more you realize what you don’t know and can’t possibly know. Most people probably have an opinion, but making any kind of firm prediction on these things is a fool’s game and extremely arrogant. Just trying to paint an accurate picture of the overall situation at any given moment is pretty much impossible, let alone painting a picture of the future.
But taking a modest and cautious stance doesn’t cut it for most people.
The average person reading a New York Times op-ed or attending a TED Talk is probably highly-educated. They probably know that China is becoming very important and want to know something about it, but they probably don’t have the time or care enough to immerse themselves in the finer points of China’s banking environment or its stability maintenance apparatus. That’s no shame on them. Nobody has time to become an expert in everything.
But this is why pundits like Eric Li and Gordon Chang get so much attention. They offer simplicity and certainty on a very complex issue with arguments that sound just intelligent enough to seem plausible. On an issue where people aren’t experts, their brains gravitate toward simplicity and clear-cut answers, not toward complex nuance and humility.
And this is why they’re also dangerous. I’ve met my fair share of businessmen in China short-term who’ve echoed both men’s arguments. Either, “Chinese leaders are a menace to the world and they will be overthrown any day now.” Or, “The Chinese will be our masters in the very near future, so we’d better jump on the authoritarian capitalism bandwagon NOW.”
I don’t dismiss many of the over-arching points these people make. American-style democracy definitely has a host of problems that could lead to its undoing if they go unreformed. And the CCP certainly has many dangers that will be ignored at its (and the world’s) peril. But these particular pundits aren’t capable of making these arguments in a sound way. And their work certainly isn’t commensurate with the attention it’s been given. They don’t acknowledge what they don’t know and they brush over enormous complexities that would make their crystal clear pictures quite a bit murkier.
Perhaps these people offset each other and bring a form of “balance,” but I think somebody who just reads Eric Li and Gordon Chang is worse off than if they hadn’t read anything at all.
I don’t fault newspapers for printing them. They certainly do spark discussions, which is what op-eds are supposed to do. But at this point, they’ve both been printed so much that they’ve spiraled past that critical mass and become qualified as experts BECAUSE they’ve been printed so much. So don’t confuse that attention for value – especially the kind of value one would assume is a prerequisite for a TED Talk.